With pandemic-fueled virtual schooling looking likely in 2022, some educators are experimenting with metaverse platforms to recreate the in-person social environments of colleges and universities.
Virtual education has become the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, and educators have struggled to recreate the experience of in-person classes via video-chatting platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Students have complained about Zoom fatigue, and some teachers have reported that they feel like they are speaking into a void. Perhaps most importantly, the casual social interactions inherent to in-person schooling vanished from the standard collegiate experience during the transition to online classes.
Launch House, a California-based community and residency program for startup founders and engineers, is all about bringing people together. Co-founder Brett Goldstein sees the company’s shared houses as opportunities for both traditional education — in the form of talks and meet-and-greets with Silicon Valley leaders — and the sort of casual, but entrepreneurial brainstorming that led to the foundation of companies such as Meta and Microsoft. “There’s a reason why three out of the six most valuable companies in the world were started in dorm rooms, right? And it’s because people were surrounded by tons of ideas, super inspired during unstructured time,” Goldstein said. “So that’s basically why IRL [education] works, and the important thing about the metaverse is that it can unlock that.”
At the moment, this type of social collaboration is only available to Launch House members living near New York City or Los Angeles. To make their programs more accessible, Goldstein and his colleagues built a virtual location within the two-dimensional, browser-based metaverse platform Gather. The space is modeled after real-life universities, but it isn’t just a block of classrooms: much like educational institutions in the physical world, it’s also full of hallways and nooks where students can congregate. Goldstein declined to provide specific figures regarding the program fees for Launch House’s virtual experience but said that fees would be significantly lower than those of the company’s in-person programs, which currently cost between $4,000 and $5,500.
James Bore, a director of the Gather-based metaverse design firm ReuniVous, believes that the platform’s two-dimensional nature makes it more attuned to serendipitous interactions than more immersive three-dimensional platforms such as Roblox and Minecraft. “If you’re in a physical space, you have peripheral awareness outside of your vision; you’re aware that there’s someone standing just behind you, and you might step back to include them in the conversation,” Bore said. “If you’re looking at a 3D space, a lot of those peripheral sensory signifiers are gone, so you’ve got a much narrower view of what’s around you.”
Thus far, Gather’s most popular use case is co–working; at the moment, the platform is home to over 10,000 virtual offices, according to Gather community and growth manager Joakim Isoaho. But the type of social brainstorming that Goldstein desires is a form of co-working, and Isoaho isn’t surprised by the thought of people using Gather to recreate the experience of higher education. “I would be surprised if Launch House was absolutely the first in trying any of this out,” Isoaho said. “What they’re doing is bringing founders into the space; they have events around learning from each other. But it’s also co-working, it’s also organizing different kinds of events based on learning topics.”
Higher education has a long way to go before it truly enters the metaverse. Launch House is not an accredited university; though some colleges have experimented with metaversal events, such as the Minecraft commencement put on by the University of California, Berkeley, these time-limited experiences lack the serendipity that Goldstein and his designers hope to attain on Gather. Still, the proliferation of virtual offices and educational experiences on metaverse platforms is a sign that Zoom classes may become obsolete if virtual schooling extends through 2022.
“Virtual is the new reality,” said Omar Aloyoun, a startup entrepreneur and Launch House member who pre-registered for the company’s metaverse program. “So we are now in the real world.”